Photo Courtesy of Bob Abelman

Ellis C. Dawson III, who plays the convenience store owner Usnavi in "In The Heights," performs with the rest of the cast in the hip-hop based musical.

 

March 29, 2016

Beck Center’s ‘In the Heights’ is praiseworthy

Hip-hop, rap and street dancing are not common elements in Broadway musicals. But after witnessing “In the Heights” on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts, they certainly should be. After all, it earned actor/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda four Tony Awards in 2008 and filled the seats in the Lakewood theater every week of its run.

The musical, which is marvelously directed by Victoria Bussert, takes place over three summer days in Washington Heights, where rapping convenience store owner Usnavi (Ellis C. Dawson III) fills the audience in on the neighborhood’s close-knit Hispanic residents.

They include the barrio matriarch Abuela Claudia (Jessie Cope Miller); Vanessa (Christina Perrault), a girl determined to leave the neighborhood and her job at the hair salon; Daniela and Carla (Isabel Plana and MacKenzie Wright), who run the salon; Nina (Livvy Marcus), the smart but struggling daughter of Kevin (Jared Leal) and Claudia (Kelsey Baehrens), who own a car service; and one of its charismatic dispatchers, Benny (Malik Victoria).

The musical shows what happens when Usnavi’s store sells the winning lottery ticket, worth $96,000, and the recipient is one of their own.

The entire ensemble of young, immensely talented performers are students at Baldwin Wallace University, and they bring to the stage the powerful, well-rounded performances we’ve come to expect.

Dawson, in particular, brings the character of Usnavi to life and flawlessly raps Miranda’s complex, rapid-fire lyrics. Perrault’s smooth yet powerful singing, sassiness and incredible dancing adds depth to Vanessa and a little something extra to every production number.

Also outstanding is Marcus as Nina, whose breathtaking renditions of “Breathe” and “Everything I Know” steal the show.

The scenic and lighting design by Jordan Janota and Jeff Herrmann create storefronts, apartments and fire escapes that immerse you in the world of Washington Heights and make you feel as if you are sitting on a corner stoop watching everything unfold.

And everything is infused with the hip-hop and merengue rhythms provided by conductor David Pepin and accompanied by Gregory Daniels’ exquisite choreography. The stage explodes with energy.

Miranda is now known for his new musical “Hamilton,” which is a huge Broadway hit at the moment. But this flawless Beck Center production reminds us why “In the Heights” put him on the map in the first place.


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